Clark history, “warts and all”

By Stephen Edelstein
Alumni Editor

“Excuse me, is there a Hall Hall?” my dad asked the tour guide when I first visited Clark. Several Clark presidents have buildings named after them, but not Granville Stanley Hall. Given Hall’s contribution to Clark history (he was the university’s first president), that seemed a bit odd. Now, I think I know why: Hall was an important intellectual, but he was also a eugenicist. Modern Clarkies are likely to cringe when they read Hall’s writings, and Clark needs to figure out how to handle Hall’s legacy.

G. Stanley Hall was one of the founders of modern psychology. Mostly remembered for coining the term “adolescence,” he was also the first president of the American Psychological Association. However, his research methods have since been debunked and many of his theories are unacceptable to modern society. Hall believed that white Americans were the product of racial evolution, a macro version of child development. Just as individuals matured from children, to adolescents, to adults, races matured from barbarous to civilized. This theory helped justify Western imperialism, and Hall also applied it to gender, claiming that women never fully matured. He also said that “being an only child is a disease in itself.”

I don’t think anyone will be quoting that at commencement, and that is also true of another famous name associated with Clark: Sigmund Freud. The inventor of psychoanalysis made his only American appearance at Clark in 1909, but since then he has become less and less relevant. Psychoanalysis has been abandoned in favor of other paradigms and, like Hall, many question Freud’s methods. Freud’s discussion of “penis envy” and his cocaine use are completely unacceptable in 21st century America.

Dealing with historical figures in a modern context is problem that effects everything from Thomas Jefferson to 1950s sitcoms. Clark isn’t the only place with an embarrassing patriarch. Amherst, Massachusetts is named after Jeffery Amherst, who helped put down Pontiac’s Rebellion by giving Native Americans smallpox-infected blankets. Americans still celebrate Columbus Day.

Some advocate exposing historical figures’ indiscretions to better learn from the past. In this view Jefferson should be reviled for owning slaves because that shows the hypocrisy espousing freedom while keeping human chattel. Similarly, Hall and Freud should be condemned for tempering psychology with their own racism and misogyny.

Alternatively, there is the “man of his time” view. It stresses context, judging historical actors by the social standards of their own times. With hindsight, we know that cocaine is dangerously addictive, but researchers in Freud’s era did not know that.

Both approaches have their merits and demerits, but they miss the point. History is not about judging people, by our standards or theirs. Morality is important (there is no neutral way to look at Hitler), but before we ask whether someone is good or evil, we must ask why they are being talked about in the first place.

The point is not to excuse their faults, but to identify what made them great and see if that still applies. Hall and Freud were two of the founders of modern psychology; society’s progress has not changed that fact. Their methods and ideas may have been debunked, but everything still started with them.

Clark should be proud of its contribution to the academy; its name appears in hundreds of history books and Wikipedia articles because of the efforts of its first president.

Crackpot theories or not, G. Stanley Hall and Sigmund Freud still add to the Clark mystique, and can even attract new students. That was the case for me: my dad read about Hall and Freud in college psychology classes, and that is how I found out about Clark.